illustration of a woman in a black dress with long black hair swimming down through the water toward a smaller human figure

The Witch of Blackbird Pond

by Elizabeth George Speare

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Historical Context

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Colonial Exploration and Expansion
Rather than being set in a single historical context, The Witch of Blackbird Pond might be better considered in light of several overlapping historical contexts, all of which would have shaped the world and characters of the novel in different ways. The first of these is that of colonial exploration and expansion. The Witch of Blackbird Pond opens in 1687 and is set in Connecticut Colony. This is less than 60 years after the famous landing of the Mayflower in 1620 and roughly 50 years since the River Colony was founded in 1636. The River Colony combined with two other colonies, Saybrook Colony (founded 1644) and New Haven Colony (founded 1662) to become Connecticut Colony. These factors combine to mean that older characters such as Hannah Tupper may well remember the origins of their community. The multiple origins of the colony also meant that though the colony is relatively new and relatively homogeneous in ethnicity and religion, it has known political change and historical diversity; these period farmers and craftsmen are politically savvy in many ways.

Protestant Reformation
However, these northern colonies most often referred to in the novel (Massachusetts and Connecticut) were not just new political entities. They were very deeply devoted to living religious lives and as such should be viewed as one of several ongoing expressions of the Protestant Reformation. While popular unrest regarding the abuses within the Catholic church had existed for decades earlier, the traditional starting date for the Reformation is Martin Luther's dramatic nailing of his 95 theses to the church door in 1517. This started a wave of what was intended to be reform internal to the church and meant to bring decadent existing practices into line with the ideals articulated in the Bible. When this proved impossible, new religious denominations formed: Lutherans, Anabaptists, Presbyterians, and Anglicans all branched off, each making its own interpretation of the Bible and developing worship practices and codes of conduct based on those interpretations.

Puritanism
The Puritans who founded Connecticut had themselves rebelled against the Anglican church in the late sixteenth century. At first they were “merely” dissenters against England’s official church and were “merely” persecuted and denied access to various professions requiring religious conformity. However, after decades of effort, many Puritans finally decided the Anglican church was beyond reform. Various groups started emigrating in search of a place where they could worship more freely—and, it should be added, more rigorously, for the Puritans sought, as their name indicates, a pure life according to pure faith.

However, since their faith led them first to criticize, and then to separate from, the Church of England, this meant their spiritual goals had very real political implications. The Puritan movement occurred during a period when England was facing very real challenges due to religious clashes and dissent, and when Anglicanism seemed under assault from many sides. In 1588, the English defeated the (Catholic) Spanish Armada, and in 1606 Parliament established an Oath of Allegiance. James I, who was king during the establishment of Connecticut Colony, was relatively lenient toward Puritans, but his son Charles I took the throne in 1625, and Charles was a very different monarch. Charles, who married a Catholic, was a believer in the absolute right of kings and regularly interfered with the religious practices and established rights of British subjects. This eventually led to a civil war and the execution of Charles.

The monarchy was reestablished in 1660, but by this time, the Puritans had lost any real trust in the crown. They had been accepted and rejected, given rights and had them denied, and so on. What’s more, the very makeup of Connecticut Colony would give them reason to distrust Charles II. One of the judges who had condemned Charles I to death had taken refuge in New Haven Colony, which as a result had lost its charter and been combined into Connecticut. The concerns Matthew Wood voices about the king infringing on the charter, then, have a very real basis in experience and human emotion: it had happened before, and the king had reason to bear a grudge. Given the dedication to Biblical origins and the persecutions they suffered, it is also not surprising that the Puritans considered themselves akin to the Israelites: similarly isolated and similarly charged with living as a godly people.

Economics
Economically, Connecticut Colony occupies a complex place. Given its isolation from the manufacturing centers of England, colonists necessarily made most of their own goods. Many of the Puritan founders of the colony, however, came from the nobility and so were used to fine goods. What’s more, the very laws that forbade Puritan involvement in many professions clustered them in others: many Puritans became wealthy as traders. This kept them tied into the transatlantic trading network of the British colonies; it is what allowed Kit Tyler to sail there from the West Indies, and it allowed William Ashby to order fine windows from England for his new house. Moreover, the Puritans strongly emphasized learning (albeit within narrow bounds). This led them to establish universities early—Yale was founded in 1701—and produce a flow of scholarship back and forth across the Atlantic.

The Metaphysical
Finally, the metaphysical context of Connecticut Colony needs at least a brief discussion because of the centrality of witchcraft accusations in the novel. The famous Salem Witch Trials did indeed happen, and just a few years after this novel ends (in 1692), but for all that they loom large in The Witch of Blackbird Pond and the American popular mind, comparatively few witches were tried in the colonies compared to England or Europe as a whole. England had outlawed witchcraft in the 1640s, and James I had even written a tract entitled Daemonologie, arguing that witches were a very real threat. The relatively mild hysteria described in Speare’s novel, and the ease with which it is dispelled, shows that the colony is at the relative leading edge of moving into a more secular worldview.

Media Adaptations

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An audiobook version of The Witch of Blackbird Pond was issued in 2003 by Listening Library/Random House. Mary Beth Hurt reads the novel, and the adaptation takes 6.5 hours.

Setting

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The events of the tale begin in April 1687 and continue through the following spring. Wethersfield, the principal scene of the action, is several miles south of Hartford, Connecticut, near the banks of the Connecticut River. Historically, this is the time of the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts.

The opening chapter introduces the cultural contrasts between the warm, friendly island life of Barbados and the cold Puritan society of Connecticut, 1486 The Witch of Blackbird Pond where religion rules everything from parties and husking bees to courting. Kit sees constant reminders—"a pillory, a whipping post and stocks"—of the oppressiveness of Puritan New England. She must put away her colorful dresses brought from Barbados and wear the drab colors that are standard in Wethersfield. Before coming to America, she swam in the warm Caribbean waters; now she finds that swimming in New England is suspect and that the waters are as chilling as the society. Young people, Kit discovers, are to be seen and not heard in Puritan society, which is based on the premise that punishments are given in this world, rewards in the next world. The New England setting contrasts with Kit's former life and immediately introduces conflict into the story.

Literary Qualities

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One of Speare's outstanding achievements as a writer is her ability to create a strong sense of place. In The Witch of Blackbird Pond, the contrast between Barbados and New England highlights the distinct characteristics of the Connecticut setting. Speare sets up this contrast in the novel's opening chapter: "The bleak line of shore surrounding the gray harbor was a disheartening contrast to the shimmering green and white that fringed the turquoise bay of Barbados..." Throughout the novel, Speare associates drab colors, particularly gray and black, with Kit's new home, while she describes Barbados with colorful imagery.

The books valued by residents of each locale further underscore the differences between Barbados and New England. In Barbados Kit was encouraged to read imaginative works of poetry and drama, including works by William Shakespeare, Thomas Otway, and John Dryden. The Wethersfield colonists, on the other hand, shun writing that seems purely imaginative and emphasize books that establish codes of behavior, such as the Bible and John Bunyan's allegory Pilgrim's Progress. The Accidence is also considered worthwhile reading in Wethersfield for the rules of grammar that it sets forth. Speare uses these differences in reading preferences to create a sense of the social values of the two locales.

Wethersfield and Barbados represent the two sides of Kit's personality. When the novel begins, she has already developed the love of beauty and the appreciation of the imagination that Barbados represents, but she has not developed the capacity for hard work or the sense of individual achievement and well-earned pride that Wethersfield represents. By the end of the novel, she has developed both sides of her personality, and it is only then that she becomes a mature young adult.

Social Sensitivity

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There is little in The Witch of Blackbird Pond that is likely to offend readers, though one reviewer has taken issue with the suggestion at the novel's end that Nat and Kit will marry, calling this conclusion a "sexist compromise." But Speare is writing about an age where even the most independent young women had extremely limited options available to them, and so it would be difficult for her to suggest another future for Kit without sacrificing the novel's historical authenticity. Furthermore, Speare implicitly criticizes the treatment of women in seventeenth-century New England by showing how charges of witchcraft were used to suppress independent women, who were perceived as a threat. The kind Hannah Tupper is persecuted not only because she is an independent woman, but because of her Quaker faith, and in this sense Speare's novel also criticizes intolerance of religious differences.

For Further Reference

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Buskin, Barbara H., and Karen H. Harris. Notes from a Different Drummer: A Guide to Juvenile Fiction Portraying the Handicapped. New York: Bowker, 1977. Briefly treats the character of Mercy and her handicap.

Commire, Anne, ed. Something about the Author. Vol. 5. Detroit: Gale Research, 1973. Contains a brief sketch of Speare's life followed by her own remarks about her work.

Cosgrave, Mary Silvia. "Elizabeth George Speare—Newbery Award Winner." Library Journal 84 (April 15, 1959): 1291-1292. Brief biographical and critical commentary.

"A Feminist Look at Children's Books." Library Journal Supplement 17 (January 1971): 19-24. Charges that the novel is a "cop out" because a "sexist compromise is made" by setting up the marriage between Kit and Nat at the end of the novel.

Kingman, Lee, ed. Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books, 1956-1965. Boston: Horn Book, 1965. Reprints Speare's Newbery Medal acceptance speech for The Witch of Blackbird Pond as well as biographical commentary on Speare by Helen Reeder Cross. 1490 The Witch of Blackbird Pond

Kirkpatrick, D. L., ed. Twentieth-Century Children's Writers. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin's, 1983. Includes a bibliography of Speare's writings and brief critical commentary.
Peterson, Linda Kauffman, and Marilyn Leathers Solt. Newbery and Caldecott Medal and Honor Books: An Annotated Bibliography. Boston: Hall, 1982. Brief plot summary with some critical commentary.

Senick, Gerald, ed. Children's Literature Review. Vol 8. Detroit: Gale Research, 1985. Excerpts reviews of Speare's books, including The Witch of Blackbird Pond.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Apseloff, Marilyn Fain. 1991. Elizabeth George Speare. Twayne’s United States Authors Series 541. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International.

Bartlett, Robert M. 1978. The faith of the Pilgrims: An American heritage. New York: United Church Press.

Beetz, Kirk H. 1990. Beacham’s guide to literature for young adults. Vol. 3. Washington, DC: Beacham Publishing.

Codgill, Oline H. 2003. Showtime. South Florida Sun-Sentinel, January 17, 35.

Langdon, William Chauncy. 1937. Everyday things in American life, 1607-1776. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Polk, William R. 2006. The birth of America: From before Columbus to the revolution. New York: HarperCollins.

Schwebel, Sara L. 2003. Historical fiction and the classroom: Elizabeth George Speare’s The witch of blackbird pond. Children’s Literature in Education 34(3): 195-218.

Sullivan, Robert. 1994. Elizabeth G. Speare, 84, author of children’s historical novels. New York Times, November 16, D24.

Speare, Elizabeth George. 1958. The witch of blackbird pond. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Further Reading
Cheatham, Bertha M., and Cohen, Andrew. 1989. Speare given Wilder Medal. School Library Journal 35(6): 13-14. This article reflects on Elizabeth George Speare’s body of work on the occasion of her receiving a major award. Anita Silver, editor of the Hornbook, comments on how Speare’s work was marked by historical accuracy and a feeling for both setting and character.

McElmeel, Sharron L. 1999. 100 most popular children’s authors: Biographical sketches and bibliographies. Portsmouth, NH: Libraries Unlimited. This reference work gives a brief overview of Speare’s life and career.

Nesti, Robert. 2002. Theater review: Roots of prejudice explored at Wheelock’s “Blackbird Pond.” Boston Herald, November 20, 59. This review discusses a contemporary stage adaptation of the novel.

Thuente, Mary-Helen. 1985. Beyond historical fiction: Speare’s The witch of blackbird pond. English Journal 74(6): 50-55. Thuente argues that the novel succeeds so well because of Speare’s skill in blending realistic fiction with the symbolic structures of the folktale.

Weir, William. 2002. Stirring up lively debate: Witchcraft? Some want books removed from school system. Hartford Courant, August 27, B3. This brief article summarizes a recent debate over attempts to remove The Witch of Blackbird Pond from school reading lists because it promotes witchcraft. Interested readers will be able to find a series of letters to the editor following up on this original article.

Weisman, Kay. 2006. 15 historical classics. Booklinks, July, 59-61. This brief article discusses The Witch of Blackbird Pond as one of a number of classic historical novels for young adult readers.

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